I learn so much from the people whom I serve in my work. I am working as a hospital chaplain, and each time I enter a room it feels a bit like entering a gospel story. The longing for healing and light in a dark time is palpable. Many are waiting for results from tests and biopsies. How are they getting through such times of uncertainty and anxiety, I wonder – and often ask.
Advent, too, is a time of waiting. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made …” says Jeremiah 33.14. The promise of “a righteous Branch to spring up”. The promise of new life, sturdy and redeeming.
One patient I encountered was waiting for test results he hoped would get at the root of a fever he had had for some time. He had been in and out of hospitals his whole life, going on five decades, with an illness. But he was not ready to let go of life yet, he said.
He got through the waiting with the help of his family and by watching movies, mostly. No, he said, he didn’t read much. And he told me about a disability that affected his ability to read for many years until it was diagnosed when he was a young adult. He had experienced a lot of failure in school until someone finally uncovered the source of his struggle. He was proud to say that he eventually finished school near the top of his class.
What struck me was not that he had achieved success. What struck me was that his story was not focused on the dark times – though there was that – but on the light, on the compassionate care of a person who got to the heart of the matter for him and helped turned the night into day. I got the sense that his current hope drew strength and sturdiness from that enduring willingness to look for light.
It may be fruitful in this season of waiting to look back on our own lives in this way. In preparing to do the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, retreatants work through just such an exercise called the Personal Blessed History.
In this exercise, we are invited to consider our history in terms of the light-filled moments: parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, companionship, incidents in childhood, school, experiences of church, talents, health, assisting others, positions held, gifts. Look over your own life searching out those special times when you have experienced the Presence of God, when you have been called to gratitude and wonder. It might even be helpful to draw a timeline of your life, punctuating it with these events.
Light may not always be obvious or immediately perceived. Maybe there was a time when you did not feel very free but you were able to leave that lack of freedom behind. Or there may have been difficulties or challenges you met and through which you were sustained. Companions who helped you in times of doubt and confusion.
Pray to see it all with new eyes.
Greta DeLonghi works as a hospital chaplain and as a spiritual director in a residential treatment centre. She lives in Guelph, Ontario.